OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON – Barack Obama and John McCain are the two contenders in America’s presidential election this year, but the campaign has also been dominated by two very different women, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Indeed, many observers believe that women will determine the election’s outcome. So, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, “What do American women want?”
Until the 1960’s, American women were more likely than men to support Republicans. In the 1980 election, a different gender gap emerged, with women more likely than men to support Democrats. In 1996, women’s support for Bill Clinton was 14 percentage points higher than men’s, and in 2000, women favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by 12 points.
But, since 1996, the political gender gap has been halved. The women gravitating back to the Republicans, according to conventional wisdom, are “security moms” – suburban wives and mothers who started worrying about their families’ safety after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. McCain’s selection of Palin was an attempt to appeal to these mothers and to pick up votes from women disappointed about Clinton’s loss.
In fact, the shift to Republicans since 2001 was largely confined to Southern white women. In the nation as a whole, notes political scientist Karen Kaufmann, 50% of mothers with children voted for Bush in 2000, and this actually dipped to 49% in 2004. But Southern white women, who were much more likely than Southern white men to support Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, were less likely than Southern men to support Democrat John Kerry in 2004. There is now a bigger difference between the voting preferences of Southern white women and white women in the rest of the country than between men and women.